Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

     In ancient Greece, a young prince has fallen out of favor with his father and the gods, and is exiled to the land of Phthia.  When Patroclus arrives, his status is diminished to that of a servant - he is scared, lonely, and still just a child.  He soon is introduced to Prince Achilles, and the two immediately strike up a friendship.  The boys spend nearly every hour of the day together, and over the years, their friendship develops into something much more complicated and tender.  But Achilles is the son of a goddess - Thetis - and she is not pleased by the nature of their relationship.  She is focused on the prophecy surrounding her son - that he will be a great, famous warrior, but will die young in battle.  As Patroclus and Achilles grow older, their relationship blossoms, but always in the shadow of the prophecy.

     The Greek myths are inconsistent regarding Achilles and Patroclus.  Some stories suggest that they were not just lifelong friends, but also lovers, and some stories do not mention the two in a romantic context at all.  In Madeline Miller's retelling of the classic myth, their relationship resembles that of a secret marriage.  Patroclus and Achilles are devoted to one another and nearly inseparable for almost 20 years.  While their closest friends knew the nature of their relationship, their love and affection for each other is only recognized in the context of friendship to most.  Eventually, the Trojan War intensifies, and Patroclus and Achilles must balance love, warfare, heroics, and honor.

     Even if The Iliad and The Odyssey aren't that fresh in your memory, The Song of Achilles is easy to read.  Miller includes a very helpful list of all the characters in the back of the book that acts as a refresher to figures such as Zeus, Odysseus, Paris, Chiron, and Helen.  I admit, I did have to consult Wikipedia a time or two, but this novel was still very readable and fast-paced.  Reading about such famous characters and stories in such a new context is fascinating, and retelling Greek myths is ambitious (especially for a first novel), but Miller's writing is graceful and natural, and the book is very well-organized and highly researched.  Patroclus and Achilles may not be as famous as Odysseus and Penelope or Orpheus and Eurydice, but Miller's version of their story is equally epic, tragic, and unforgettable - prompting discussions of love, sexuality, gender roles, fate, and sacrifice.

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